Nearly 90 and still saving the world

Nearly 90 and still saving the world
Folk legend Pete Seeger on whirlwind tour

Patrick Langston
The Ottawa Citizen

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

When Pete Seeger answers the telephone at his home in upstate New York, there’s one banger of a summer storm going on.

“Pete, get off the phone! Lightning can come down the line and kill you,” someone shouts at him. But the revered folk singer and activist wants to chat, maybe realizing that, at 89, his talking days are limited. The lightning will just have to co-operate.

Forty-five minutes later, Seeger, who plays a sold-out show at Library and Archives Canada tonight, courtesy of the Ottawa Folk Festival, finally starts to lose steam. Along the way, he’s referenced the American anthropologist Margaret Mead and her fellow countryman, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, segued into the French medieval origin of the word “saunter,” and talked about his own role in helping ignite the folk music revival on the college circuit of the 1950s.

The banjo-playing musician loved by generations has also said he’s doing a quickly arranged and rapidly sold-out mini-tour of Montreal, Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa, (a benefit for the Unitarian Service Committe of Canada), partly because “I’m curious to see what’s going on in Canada. The French and English have reached a modus operandi. Lots of countries face this problem, and the ancient tradition of our big-brained species was to fight and one would take over the other.”

He adds that he’s looking forward to sharing the small-venue stages with his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of folk-rockers the Mammals and acoustic blues man Guy Davis, who’s also on this year’s Ottawa Bluesfest lineup.

Both Rodriguez-Seeger and Davis, reached separately, are delighted to talk about Seeger rather than themselves. “I think grandpa’s hard-wired to just keep going,” says Rodriguez-Seeger. “I think the only thing he regrets is not having saved the world enough.”

Davis, a family friend since he was seven years old, says: “What he can do is make others feel good about themselves.”

Seeger has been doing that since playing for union meetings and forming the Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie and others as a young man in the early 1940s. He later launched the Weavers, who turned the post-war hit parade spotlight on folk music with songs like Goodnight Irene and On Top of Old Smokey.

Seeger, more whirlwind than man, was once a member of the Communist Party, found himself blacklisted for refusing to testify before the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1955 (he didn’t play network television for 17 years as a result), and over the decades has been in the vanguard of the civil rights, peace and environmental movements including the clean-up of the filthy Hudson River, which his home overlooks.

A beacon for singers from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen – whose 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, is a joyous reinterpretation of tunes from the master’s songbook – Seeger has made countless recordings and written or co-written such timeless songs as If I Had a Hammer, Turn, Turn, Turn, and Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Seeger watches always for the extraordinary in the ordinary. He talks about the hundreds of community gardens in New York City that started with a few women and children picking up trash in a vacant lot and grew into a network of common purpose among people who would have otherwise never met.

“The powers that be can infiltrate any big organization they want and co-opt it and corrupt it. I’m sure this is what happened to the Sierra Club. But what are they going to do about 10 million little things? Break up three, and four more spring up.”

Those little ones include children, and Seeger is renowned for his children’s concerts. “Children give you hope for the world,” he says when asked if he’s optimistic about mankind’s survival. “If there’s a world here, it will be because of people learning how to work with children.”

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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